A view of the Parliament House in New Delhi.  (PTI )
A view of the Parliament House in New Delhi. (PTI )

Lok Sabha passes Bill to set up National Committee on Dam Safety to prevent dam failures

  • The country has witnessed as many as 36 disasters related to dams in the past
  • Every owner of the specified dam would also establish an emergency flood warning system for the probable flood affected areas

NEW DELHI : With its major focus on the setting up uniform safety standards of all the specified dams across the country, Lok Sabha on Friday passed the Dam Safety Bill, 2019.

India, with as many as 5,344 big dams across various states and around 470 under construction is only the third country in the world, after USA, China to have the highest number of dams. However, over 293 of them are more than 100 years old and nearly 1,000 over 50 years old which raises risks for potential future disasters.

“There is an urgent need for a common protocol to safeguard these important structures, which are not only critical for fulfilling water requirements of people, but also for energy needs. Any damage to them, not only causes massive loss of life and property but causes major international embarrassment," said G S Shekhawat, Union Minister for Jal Shakti.

The country has witnessed as many as 36 disasters related to dams in the past, out of which 11 took place in Rajasthan. The most severe disaster took place in 1979 when the breach in Machchhu dam in Gujarat lead to loss of several thousand lives.

The Bill proposes to set up a National Committee on Dam Safety headquartered in New Delhi for maintaining standards of dam safety and prevention of dam failure related disasters, evolving dam safety policies and recommend necessary regulations.

It would be led by Chairperson of the Central Water Commission (CWC), ten representatives of the Centre government, seven representatives of the state government and three experts in the field of dam safety.

There will also be a regulatory National Dam Safety Authority headed by an officer not below the rank of Additional Secretary to the Government and State Committees on Dam Safety to be formed by the state governments for implementing policies formulated by the national committee.

The Bill, however, received criticism from few of the members of the Opposition parties who alleged that the Bill attempts to encroach upon the rights of the states in the guise of dam safety.

While opposing the Bill, All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) MP from West Bengal, Mahua Moitra said the Bill infringes upon the federal structure and power of state. “All the 21 members of the committee would be nominated by the Centre government, even the state representatives. Instead of working in consultation with states, the Centre believes only in issuing directives," she said.

She also highlighted that the Bill proposes to punish anyone who obstructs any officer authorised by the National Committee or the State Committee in discharge of his functions with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both. “This is nothing, but draconian," she argued.

The argument was supported by BJD MP from Odisha Bhartruhari Mahtab who said the top-down approach would not work in the long-run and the state governments should be empowered to ensure safety of their dams. “Most of these dams have been built by states with their own resources. Rarely, Centre has invested in them. So, it is states who should manage the safety of these dams."

However, Shekhawat said the Bill was needed since most states in the country have not prepared an emergency action plan for dams. “There are security concerns. Mere operational maintenance is not adequate. We need to avert disasters like the one happened in Kerala last year," he said.

Responding to concerns of Opposition members, he said, “These are your dams and your water. The power share will remain the same and so the operation and management of these dams. It is just that the new committee would supervise the safety of these dams for the purpose of national security, to avert disasters."

Under the Bill, the owners of the dams would provide a dam safety unit consisting of competent levels of engineers which would undertake pre-monsoon and post-monsoon inspections of the dam every year. The report will be submitted to the State Dam Safety Organisation which would analyse the report and suggest remedial measures to the owner of specified dam.

Every owner of the specified dam would also establish an emergency flood warning system for the probable flood affected areas downstream of the dam and prepare emergency action plan before allowing the initial filling of the reservoir and thereafter update such plans at regular intervals.